Downton Boo BooWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
It’s fashionable to bash and disavow television, as if most people are seated in their study, a crackling fire providing counterpoint to the NPR on their earbuds and the David Foster Wallace novel in their well-manicured fingers.
But with hundreds of stations available and boutique channels catering to every interest from cooking to travel to science-fiction movies featuring airplane-eating sharks and bridge-destroying squids, television is an indispensible center of entertainment.
My wife and I limit the amount of television we allow our 4- and 6-year-old sons to watch. The routine of getting them to bed, making their school lunches for the next day and keeping our home in order limits the amount of television we see, but there are some shows we try to catch and a few we never miss.
Thank you, DVR. I know there are more important modern inventions than the digital video recorder (defibrillators, cake pop machines, chemotherapy, USB flash drives), but few that are as convenient on a daily basis. The DVR comes in particular use on Sundays. At 9 p.m., PBS shows “Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey” at the exact same time TLC shows “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”
Your reaction to the titles of those two programs is a Rorschach test of your pop culture tastes. People react strongly to both shows, often despite the fact that they have never seen five minutes of either one. Some people wrinkle their noses at “Downton Abbey” as if it were a plate of marmite-soaked toast; some people wrinkle their noses at “Honey Boo Boo,” as if it were a plate of scrapple. Odds are, such people have not tried “Abbey,” “Boo Boo,” marmite or scrapple, but that does not stop them from expressing their critical disdain. Both shows are the best of their genres and compelling entertainment.
“Downton Abbey,” created by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes, follows the aristocratic Crawley family in their magnificent castle estate, telling their story through their lives and through the eyes of their large group of maids, footmen, cooks and servants. The story began with the sinking of Titanic and has followed the family for nearly a decade during the course of three seasons. The sterling cast includes Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, Elizabeth McGovern as his wife Lady Cora and Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael and Jessica Brown Findlay as their three daughters. Other cast highlights include Maggie Smith as Robert’s mother Violet the Dowager Countess, Dan Stevens as reluctant heir Matthew Crawley and Jim Carter (Carson), Brendan Coyle (Bates) and Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), key members of the staff.
The show is deliberately paced, heavy on melodrama, written with a refined sense of wordplay and acted with an impeccable human touch. It requires and rewards patience and a long memory. As in a carefully plotted novel, events tend to echo and themes repeat as the drama unfolds.
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” on TLC, which at one point stood for The Learning Channel, follows the family of Alana “Boo Boo” Thompson, a 7-year-old rural Georgia girl who competes in child beauty pageants. Her family, June “Mama” Shannon, father Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson and three sisters (nicknamed “Pumpkin,” “Chickadee” and “Chubbs”) are crude, self-proclaimed “rednecks” characterized by one reviewer as “a horde of lice-picking, lard-eating, nose-thumbing hooligans,” a fairly accurate if understated description.
On “Honey Boo Boo,” Alana is shown preparing for pageants by drinking her mother’s “Go Go Juice,” a mix of Mountain Dew and Red Bull,” and eating plate after plate of “sketti,” which is pasta covered in a sauce that consists of a bottle of ketchup and nearly a full tub of butter blended in a microwave. Each child in the family has a different father, and exhibits behavior that should horrify and revolt even the dimmest parents. The principals of the show speak with such thick Southern accents (often through mouths full of junk food or devoid of teeth), that nearly all of them are subtitled. It is impossible to defend the pretext of the show, though it is open to debate whether watching it makes the viewer complicit in the family’s self-propelled exploitation.
The “Downton” and “Boo Boo” families may be a century, an ocean and cultures apart, but they have many things in common. Both feature a patriarch overwhelmed by smarter and more powerful women, although “smarter” is a relative term when it comes to Boo Boo’s family. Both clans deal with financial issues, social competitions and single-parent babies (although those babies arrive at their status through polar-opposite circumstances). Both families have ongoing sister rivalries that add tension and sometimes humor.
The shows may be wildly divergent in intent, but the one element that unites them — fact vs. fiction, scripted vs. reality — is the clear and unconditional love each family has for its members. That is a strong element missing from a lot of entertainment, whether it features stiff upper lips or red necks.
Both programs are immensely entertaining while evoking antipodal emotions. “Downton” is intellectually rewarding and raises the bar for television drama. “Boo Boo” redefines “guilty pleasure” and lowers the bar for “reality” programs, a genre digging new nadirs with alarming speed. But “Boo Boo” is no more responsible for the crumbling of civility than “Downton” is responsible for preserving the last few atoms of societal dignity. Both shows are mere reflections: “Downton” one of British nostalgia, “Boo Boo” one of American dissolution. Watching “Downton” doesn’t make me a better human being. Watching “Boo Boo” doesn’t make me a worse one.
Writer Harlan Ellison, responding to the notion that television sucks, said television doesn’t suck; it is sucked. It is a glass teat from which viewers draw the nutrition — or poison — they seek. Whether your palate prefers the fine cream of “Downton Abbey” or the sour lemon of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” it’s a testament to the art that you can pick your sweets — or your poison.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.